The IELTS Speaking task is one many candidates dread the most. Like the IELTS Writing task, it involves self-expression in English. Moreover, it is the only one of the tasks that takes place face-to-face with an examiner. Understandably, that makes many candidates nervous, which can detract from the sense of self-confidence in speaking that is one of the specific skills tested.
Perhaps it is helpful to look first at the things that are not evaluated, or that play a smaller role in determining the candidate’s overall IELTS Speaking band score.
– Accent. Examiners assume that second-language English speakers will have an accent. Almost all students who take up a new language after puberty (early teen age) will have an accent in the second language for life. As long as the accent is not so heavy that it makes it difficult for the examiner to understand the words candidates say, it is not a major concern.
– Pronunciation. Naturally, good pronunciation contributes to a higher band score, but, like accent, it is not assumed that a second-language English speaker will pronounce words exactly as native speakers do. This is particularly true with cognates, words commonly taken from English directly into other languages (e.g., “computer”, “operator” and “administrator”). Second-language speakers tend to put the accents on those words on syllables other than the ones native speakers do. But, again, if the pronunciation does not interfere with clear communication, it is of secondary importance.
The following are aspects of spoken English to which IELTS examiners attach greater importance:
– Fluency. This does not mean the ability to speak at the skill level of a native speaker, i.e., “speaking the language fluently.” It refers instead to whether the candidate’s speech flows naturally. The more readily a candidate responds to an examiner’s question, without having to pause to translate it, the better.
– Communication. Examiners don’t just test candidates’ ability to speak; they pay attention to the ability to communicate effectively. For true communication to take place, candidates must also be good listeners – so that they can understand questions accurately – and willing participants in a conversation. While the IELTS Speaking task is a highly structured interview, to earn a high band score it needs to be more than a series of questions and answers. It should become a free exchange of information, thoughts and experiences between the candidate and the examiner.
– The desire to communicate. Examiners look for indications that a candidate is not only willing to take part in a conversation but actively wants to. They pay special attention to candidates’ willingness to do what they call “expanding on answers,” which means answering a question with more information, or a fuller response, than the question strictly asked. It doesn’t mean going off the subject but, rather, volunteering ideas, insights and personal experiences that relate to the question but provide a more satisfying answer.
– Considered, thoughtful, well-developed and -organized answers. When examiners ask candidates their opinions or ideas on topics, they take note of answers that go beyond a single sentence or, worse, a sentence fragment. Being able to generate a thoughtful and, within reason, complex answer to a question, and to communicate it clearly and with good organization of ideas, produces higher band scores. This is particularly true, of course, in the so-called Long Turn in the middle of the exercise, where the candidate is expected to speak for a minimum of one and up to two minutes on a provided topic (after a minute of preparation).
– Strong spoken grammar. While examiners are generally forgiving of common, minor grammar errors, particularly if they are few in number, spoken grammar must be good enough that it does not interfere with the clear communication of the candidate’s experiences or ideas. Many grammar errors, especially if they are of different types, will lower the band score.
– Flexible, easily accessible spoken vocabulary. A good vocabulary and easy access to all the words necessary to answer questions is important to success in this task.
– Self-confidence. Speaking confidently and without undue nervousness is the key to a high band score in IELTS Speaking. Being relaxed, spontaneous, pleasant and alert to opportunities that come up in conversation are the surest signs that a candidate has true, reliable, effective speaking skills.